Feb 20, 2013, 5:28 PM EDT
If you think today’s result will just be a one-off, your memory’s short. This is how Chelsea did it last year. This is how Manchester United did it in 2008 and how Chelsea nearly derailed them a year later. This is how Barcelona goes out, but unlike recent years that saw opponents get a goal and hold out, Milan got two. And now one of the tournament favorites is on the brink of leaving UEFA Champions League before they’ve even managed to threaten their opponent’s goal.
That’s how surprisingly lopsided today’s match was, though that imbalance won’t be reflected in the possession stat. At 73 percent, Barcelona held even more of the ball than they’re used to. Yet paradoxically, their attack was far more feeble, only putting one shot on Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati. Barça never showed the will or ability to solve what’s becoming a surprisingly reliable formula.
That formula: Defend. It’s not complicated. Just keep defending to the extreme and wait for your chances, no matter how long it takes. If you stay focused, camp behind the ball, and force Barcelona to move through you, they can be beat. All you need is one moment – one good bounce, one swift movement – and you can derail one of the best teams in the world.
“The result is definitely unexpected,” Milan midfielder Riccardo Montolivo conceded after his team’s 2-0 victory. “We faced the best team in the world.”
Milan’s first moment came in the 57th minute, the first real chance of a game that had been chance-less. Off a restart near the edge of their attacking third, Milan let midfielder Montolivo try from distance. His shot from 30 yards out hit a Barcelona player, went off the hand of Cristian Zapata, and fell for Kevin Prince-Boateng. The Milan attacker turned on his left foot and fired with his right from just inside the box, the bang-bang action leaving Victor Valdés flat-footed as the game’s winning goal flexed the right side of his net.
It was a stroke of bad luck for the Catalans, but sauntering through their road leg with the intensity of camel, Barça was ripe to be caught. It nearly happened in the 11th minute, when Milan broke with numbers after a corner kick. It almost happened in the 16th minute, when a poor touch from Stephan El Shaarawy is all that prevented a point-blank chance on goal. Thanks to long passes from Montolivo and the constant threat of El Shaarawy getting behind right back Dani Alves, Milan was always one movement away from taking the lead.
“We couldn’t create chances, Milan was well-organized,” Alves said before conceding, “We could have competed a bit better.”
Lightning stuck for a second time in the 80th minute when a ball chipped forward M’Baye Niang allowed the French teenager to find El Shaarawy in the box. The young Italian lifted a ball over the right side of Barça’s defense for an oncoming Sulley Muntari, whose finish back across goal put Barcelona on the edge of elimination.
“It was the most important goal of my career,” Muntari said afterward.
No doubt Barcelona controlled the match, but their command was passive, their assured but serene possession playing into Milan’s hands. With three compact midfielders, wingers tracking deep, and a defensive so far back they rarely had to worry about anything behind them, the Rossoneri willing ceded a control that never mattered. They may have only held 27 percent possession, but putting three shots on goal to Barcelona’s one, Milan were the more dangerous side.
“This is a very negative result,” Iniesta said after the match. “When you don’t show up for the game, this can happen.”
With their 2-0 victory, Milan proved more than opportunistic. They were the better side, one that leaves Barcelona needing two goals to have a chance of survival. But even before worry about converting chances, Barça needs to figure out who to create some.
Man of the Match: Montolivo and El Shaarawy were key to how Milan set up, but Kevin Prince Boateng’s finish is what set Milan on their way. Not everybody would have gotten that shot on goal, let alone hit a ball so well that the opposition keeper was left flat-footed. Reflexively shooting as he turned on the ball, Prince allowed Milan to reap the rewards of an extreme but highly successful approach.
And the former Ghanian international did his part on the other end, too, coming back from his right wing position to set up in the area normally patrolled by Andrés Iniesta. The Barça star had a quiet day, and although it was unclear Boateng was the cause of that, his positioning and willingness certainly helped, particularly when he was called on to track Jordi Alba’s runs (as he memorably did to win a ball behind Milan’s line in the 43rd minute).
Threesome of knowledge: What we learned
Allegri, Milan have come a long way – In the wake of the Zlatan Ibrahimovic-Thiago Silva sale, Milan got off to a terrible start to the season. They fell to the bottom half of the Serie A table while struggling to get through their Champions League group.
Now the team sits third and have a path into the Champions League quarterfinals. What happened?
Massimiliano Allegri was given time to figure his new team out, something that didn’t look certain to happen as the Rossoneri stumbled out of the gate. But slowly Allegri determined El Shaarawy was capable of carrying the scoring burden. He incorporated Montolivo, tweaked Prince’s role, and forged a viable central defense from Philippe Mexes, Cristian Zapata, and Mario Yepes.
Along the way, he moved away from Alexandre Pato. Robinho is no longer a major part of this team. Antonio Nocerino, a find last season, isn’t a vital cog in midfield.
Six months after fans were calling for his ouster, Allegri took apart Barcelona. That’s how far his team has come.
Where did Lionel Messi go? – The best player in the world was a complete non-factor. Milan was tight and compact through the middle, giving Messi no space to work, but even when the Balon d’Or winner started going wide right in an attempt to find room to work, he failed to have an impact on the game. Aside from a 29th flash when he beat left back Kevin Constant, Messi might as well have been on the sidelines.
For only the second time this season, Messi was held without a shot on goal.
It’s not like Barcelona’s other stars were much better. Xavi Hernández and Andres Iniesta played a bigger part in the game, but that’s to be expected. Milan wasn’t crowding the areas were they operate. Cesc Fábregas and Pedro Rodríguez? Their names were rarely called.
Messi, however, usually finds a way to break through. Even when he’s off, he’s capable of finding a moment of brilliance. Tonight, he wasn’t even close.
A portable approach – Milan’s tactics weren’t complicated. They weren’t dependent on anything specific to the San Siro, and as we’ve seen in recent years, other teams have been able to execute this approach on the road. There’s no reason why Milan can’t replicate this performance in Spain. Carrying two goals out of the San Siro, they even have license to be more extreme.
Barcelona may be able to break through in Spain, but odds are they’ll lose if they don’t change things up. They know their recent history. They know they need a Plan B. They can’t just assume dogma will win out.
The question is whether they can change. Do they have enough diversity of talent within the team to make the necessary changes? Is there even enough familiarity with a different approach to make those tweaks viable? Is there the will to try?
Barcelona’s in big trouble, and their problems transcend the score. They’re not a team well equipped to address this kind of challenge. They may be left with no recourse but to play their normal style and hope this time it wins out.
Packaged for takeaway
- Victor Valdés actually had a good day, particularly in the first half where a couple of aggressive reads helped him snuff out changes before they developed. But there was little he could have done to prevent either goal.
- The matchup between El Shaarawy and Alves was a particularly interesting one, with the young Italian tasked with tracking the Barcelona wingback. Early, it became evident Milan was going to try and exploit Alves’s want to push forward, with Montolivo constantly firing diagonals behind the Barça right back. Though the matchup never really bore fruit, it still helped define how Milan set up.
- Mario Balotelli is cup-tied, having appeared in the competition with Manchester City. He was seen celebrating on the sidelines during the match’s final moments.
- Looking at Barcelona’s bench, it’s unclear how they could have significantly changed their team. Alexis Sanchez came on, and Javier Mascherano eventually replaced a cut Carles Puyol, but the rest of the team represents a series of more-or-less like-for-like options: Alexander Song, Cristian Tello, Martín Montoya, and Thiago Alcantera.
Stay with us throughout Wednesday as we take a look at the day’s other match, Turkish champions Galatasaray hosting Germans Schalke 04.
May 24, 2015, 1:04 PM EDT
The Liverpool manager knows he could have hurt his position today with a 6-1 thumping at the hands of Stoke City on the season’s final day.
May 24, 2015, 1:03 PM EDT
The Blues hoist the trophy in front of their own fans in west London.
May 24, 2015, 12:45 PM EDT
Hull spent on Abel Hernandez and others in a relatively splashy summer, but still sink into the second tier.
May 24, 2015, 12:36 PM EDT
A resilient John Carver, buoyed by Newcastle United avoiding the drop, has reiterated his desire to lead the Premier League club.
May 24, 2015, 12:35 PM EDT
Clarets sign off with a win as Villa go into FA Cup final on the back of two-straight defeats.
May 24, 2015, 12:27 PM EDT
West Ham released a statement on Allardyce’s removal seconds after Sunday’s final whistle.
May 24, 2015, 12:24 PM EDT
Saints must wait for Europa League spot, as Lampard signs off in style.
May 24, 2015, 12:18 PM EDT
Tigers relegated after throwing everything at United.
May 24, 2015, 12:15 PM EDT
Kane nodded home an Eric Dier cross to give Spurs a lead, and Tottenham controlled possession for most of the match in holding on for all three points.
May 24, 2015, 12:08 PM EDT
Marouane Chamakh netted the only goal of a relatively friendly match before injuring himself shortly after.
May 24, 2015, 12:05 PM EDT
Brand new England call-up Jamie Vardy scored in the 16th minute and fellow Foxes Marc Albrighton, Leonardo Ulloa and Esteban Cambiasso also scored in a 4-1 win.
May 24, 2015, 12:03 PM EDT
A perfect day for Theo Walcott in his return to the starting lineup saw the Gunners confirm their third place finish.
May 24, 2015, 11:58 AM EDT
Potters batter Liverpool as Gerrard’s final game ends on a sour note.
May 24, 2015, 11:54 AM EDT
West Ham finishes 12th with 47 points, a far cry from their lofty early season pace. In an odd twist of fate, Newcastle finishes above its rivals at Sunderland.
May 24, 2015, 11:52 AM EDT
The Premier League champions finished off their last three points of the season at Stamford Bridge.
May 24, 2015, 11:35 AM EDT
Didier Drogba made his 381st and final Chelsea appearance, and the players honored him as he came off a half-hour in.
May 24, 2015, 11:16 AM EDT
PL legend signs off in style with a goal in his final game in England’s top-flight.
May 24, 2015, 11:14 AM EDT
It was a trio for Theo, as Arsenal’s speedy Englishman helped the Gunners to a big halftime lead over West Bromwich Albion.
May 24, 2015, 11:10 AM EDT
Arsenal has a big lead in its season finale, and this goal is a big reason why.
May 24, 2015, 11:00 AM EDT
Storylines are abound as all 10 games have reached halftime.
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